Anybody speak Finnish?

In children, Finnish, Language, News, School by Anna Gustafsson1 Comment

If I speak Finnish at school and with friends, but use another language at home with my parents, can I still call myself a Finnish speaker? And what about a person, who has maybe just arrived in Finland, and does not yet speak Finnish, but has the ability to speak four, five other languages, is it justified to label that person lacking language skills? Does only Finnish language ability count? These are questions many young people with multicultural or immigrant background have to go through.

Dr. Heini Lehtonen spent over a year in observing and studying students in schools in east part of Helsinki. She has done research on the language young people use. Another research project has just commenced in University of Helsinki. The researchers want to shake our ideas of language and language skills.

Multilingual lessons learned

Dr. Heini Lehtonen and her colleagues have visited a classroom in a school in Helsinki, where among 22 students, there are 15 different first languages. The students have tried out each other’s languages, learned some words in a new language, and for example done an art project with Cyrillic alphabet. A new boy in class, who had recently arrived in Finland, had the chance to feel important and special, when teaching others Arabic. All youth need to have the experience that their own language is important. This comes from example others wanting to learn that language.

In a multicultural classroom, the students will be better equipped for the future, says researcher Heini Lehtonen.

“In the future, being able to succeed at work means being able to work together with people from various backgrounds. A person used to different cultures is not afraid of being surrounded by unfamiliar language.” Also, another great ability is to know how to deal with a situation where there is no common language.

Arabic influences in Finnish

As a linguistic, Heini Lehtonen reminds us, that language is constantly changing. Finnish language is full of words from another countries, influences have arrived from Baltics, sometimes from Sweden or Russia. New expressions and words are integrated in to a language with people to people interaction. Heini Lehtonen describes, how in history for example vocabulary for animal rearing spread, when animal husbandry was adopted from another culture. From Russia came a lot of words for church vocabulary.

Heini Lehtonen has done research on an Arabic expression which has spread among youth in European cities. Arabic word wallahi can be roughly translated as “promise in God’s name”. In consequence, youth have started to use words swear and promise in a new way, to express their stance or attitude to something they said.

Some of the more recent examples show, how English words have been integrated into Finnish through IT branch. Already can be seen, how words and expressions have been adopted from Somalian, especially in the language used by young people. Researcher Heini Lehtonen compares modern youth language to Helsinki slang from 1940s and 50s: the old slang is respected and protected. Could the Somalian influences have the same respected position in 200 years?

More acceptance needed

Finnish skills are still in many ways the key to be included in the Finnish society. Language should not however be used to lock people out. Dr. Heini Lehtonen hopes, that we learn to be more accepting when it comes to different ways of speaking Finnish.

“Learning to listen to different Finnish is a matter of getting used to it. Too often we think, that if someone speaks with a different accent or in otherwise different way, that person cannot speak Finnish. It would be good to broaden our idea of what Finnish skills actually are. Finnish can be used in many ways.”

Multilingual youth have to in many cases defend their right to be a Finn.

“A person, who has spent their entire life immersed in just one language has really hard time understanding how difficult it is having all the time prove your language skills”, Heini Lehtonen says. “This happens however a lot for example for Somali youth. In Finland, we still have a stereotype that a Finn can only look a certain way, if you look different, you don’t speak Finnish.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photo: Elisa Seppänen






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